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Liberace's Final Curtain

After a long and fabulously over-the-top career, the populist pianist died of AIDS 14 years ago

Throughout Liberace's career, denial was as much a part of his character as his outrageous costumes. First, consider the career-long declarations of his own heterosexuality. Then, in the months preceding his Feb. 4, 1987 death at the age of 67, the pianist refused to admit he was suffering from AIDS-related pneumonia.

Wladziu Valentino Liberace was born to Italian and Polish immigrant musicians in West Allis, Wis., on May 16, 1919, and by age 16, he was guesting with the Chicago Symphony. He moved to New York City in the 1940s and hit the supper-club circuit, where he entertained crowds with his witty, fluffy shows. As his popularity grew, he hosted TV programs in the '50s and '60s, began building up his taste-defying wardrobes, and became a Vegas headliner, earning $5 million a year at his peak.

Even as he pumped up his image as a frilly clotheshorse, Liberace continued to claim he was straight. He won a 1959 libel suit against London's Daily Mirror for its allegation that he was gay, and at a 1973 press conference stated that he was ''against the practice of homosexuality because it offends convention and society.''

One got the feeling, however, that he protested too much, especially after an alleged former lover, Scott Thorson, filed a $113 million palimony suit against Liberace in 1982 (it was settled out of court in 1986 for $95,000). Two years before his death, journalist Michael Segell, who had been collaborating with Liberace on a photo book, was fired when Liberace found this in the manuscript: ''Poking a toe out of the closet, he opens up his rhinestone mink coat and winks at the audience.'' It was the only reference to homosexuality, though Liberace didn't hide his lifestyle from the writer. ''He really believed that the blue-haired ladies in his audience imagined him as a potential love god,'' says Segell.

Liberace was diagnosed with AIDS in mid-1986, and played his last shows at Radio City Music Hall later that year. On Jan. 23, 1987, Liberace was hospitalized, reportedly for anemia. He returned to his Palm Springs, Calif., mansion four days later, and nearly 100 fans kept a vigil outside his home until his death. The official cause: cardiac arrest due to inflammation of the brain. Still, Liberace's secret did not go to the grave with him. The Riverside County coroner ordered an autopsy, citing a law that stipulates all indications of contagious disease must be investigated, which led to the confirmation of AIDS.

Some thought that, like Rock Hudson, Liberace should have gone public to raise awareness. ''I think he was just terribly ashamed,'' says Segell. ''He was such a dandy, it must have been terribly humiliating for him to suffer the ravaging decline that that disease inflicts.''

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Time Capsule/Feb. 4, 1987

At the movies, Aussie phenomenon ''Crocodile'' Dundee, starring Paul Hogan (right), continues its walkabout in American theaters. In music, Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet is livin' on a prayer while at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. In bookstores, the Stephen King fairy tale The Eyes of the Dragon tops the New York Times best-seller list. And in the news, testifying before the U.S. Senate, NASA head James C. Fletcher admits that he doesn't expect a space station to be operational by the 1994 target date.

Originally posted Feb 09, 2001 Published in issue #581 Feb 09, 2001 Order article reprints